Historically, Ladakh was part of Tibet and was ruled by Tibetan kings and the Chinese. The Mons and Indo-Aryan were the rulers of western Ladakh and Zanskar in the pre-Buddhist period. According to R C Arora, the Dards of Gilgit and Astor also ruled the area which is evident from sculptures and drawings found at Khalatse and Hanupatar. Between 1380 to 1510, Muslim saints preached Islam and Syed Ali Hamdani is the one who is known for bringing Islam to the region. Today in Ladakh, Muslims are 46 percent, Buddhists 40 percent and Hindus 12 percent. In 1834, the Sikh general Zorawar Singh invaded Ladakh and annexed it to Jammu under suzerainty of the Sikh empire.

The Chinese defeated the Sikhs in 1841 and occupied Ladakh; the European influx began in 1850. The famous Silk route passed through Srinagar, Leh/Kargil, Daulat Beg Oldi, Karakorum Pass (18176 ft) to Yarkand, Khotan and to Kashgar. Sir Francis Younghusband, a British army officer and explorer, feared a Russian invasion through this pass. Trade caravans from Leh to Kashgar/Yarkand were a regular feature until 1937. In 1865, the area was surveyed by a British named Johnson who marked the whole Askai Chin as a part of Jammu and Kashmir. This line was never presented and approved by Chinese authorities.

However, after 1899, when China got Xinjiang, the British then proposed a new border line drawn by George Macartney which put Askai Chin in Chinese territory, which follows the Karakoram range as the border. This line is known as the Macartney-Macdonald line and in 1914, Ladakh was annexed by the British. After independence, India chose to take the Johnson line as border but China claimed the entire Askai Chin as its territory. In a reply to Nehru’s memo of 1954, Zhou Enlai maintained that the western border had never been delimited and that the Macartney-Macdonald line left Askai Chin with China, and since Askai Chin was already under Chinese control, dialogue should account for the status quo. Indian maps printed in 1954 showed Askai Chin as a part of India and in 1959, India started landing its troops in the disputed area. The Chinese road which was started in 1954, was completed in 1957, connecting the Xinjiang province with Tibet, cutting through Askai Chin. India did not know about the existence of the road until 1957 when revealed by the Chinese themselves.

According to the Indian Ministry of Defence, the border between India and China is 4056 kilometres and according to the Indian Ambassador to China, the border is 3488 kilometres. However officially, the Chinese say that the length of border is 2000 kilometres, 1600 kilometres less than what is believed by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. This in fact, is the length of the boundary/Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates Kashmir with Xinjiang and Tibet which is not recognised by China. According to former Indian army chief Ved Malik, for China, the eastern and middle sectors remain a bilateral issue whereas the western sectors become a trilateral issue between China, Pakistan and India.

The access from Tibet to Xinjiang runs through Askai Chin which the Chinese consider of great strategic importance. Askai Chin lies between Indian Occupied Kashmir (Ladakh) and the Chinese Xinjiang province. Askai Chin is under Chinese control and administration since the humiliating defeat of India in 1962. Eastern Ladakh has an 826-kilometre-long border with China from Karakorum Pass in the north to Demchok in the southeast. With the recent developments where on August 5, 2019, India revoked the special status of Indian Occupied Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 and 35 A, India also issued a new political map of Indian Occupied Kashmir where Azad Kashmir has been shown as part of the newly created union territory of India Occupied Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan and Askai Chin in the union territory of Ladakh. In the meantime, India also took some steps which were observed in an area named Daulat Beg Oldi, known as sub sector north. Daulat Beg Oldi is named after a Yarkand noble man who journeyed through Karakoram Pass. Daulat Beg Oldi is located 8 miles south of Karakoram Pass. This important strategic outpost was constructed during the 1962 war to keep a check on the Chinese.

After the 1962 war, a battalion was placed here and in the last year, India has upgraded the location to a brigade group force. The world’s highest airstrip, at an altitude of 16614 feet, was constructed and in 2008, IAF An-32 transport aircraft landed here. In 2013, a Super Hercules C130J also landed on this strip. The airstrip, which was commissioned in 1962, can be used for fast deployment of troops/logistics for the brigade and can also target Karakoram Highway. It can also facilitate and provide an alternative route to Siachen for logistic supplies when roads are blocked. The Indians constructed a road last year called Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg – a 255-kilometre-long road – which is all-weather with 37 bridges. The construction of a road and other military development in the sector was alarming to the Chinese, and a clear threat to Chinese Askai Chin and Tibet-Xinjiang Highway and also a threat to Gilgit-Baltistan and CPEC.

Indian former army chief general V K Singh recently said that the Indian army’s plan to take over Gilgit-Baltistan is ready and further said Gilgit-Baltistan belongs to India. Indians also objected the construction of Diamer Bhasha Dam while claiming that CPEC passes through disputed territory. To the north of Daulat Beg Oldi is the Karakoram Pass, which leads to China and not to Gilgit-Baltistan, to the east is Askai Chin and to the west is Siachen. They have no direct contact with Gilgit-Baltistan but are closer to Baltistan Division from Siachen, Shyok River Valley, and Indus River Valley. Karakoram Highway is far away, however the air strip of Daulat Beg Oldi could facilitate air attacks only. With these developments and continuous threats, in a brilliant move, a precise blitzkrieg manoeuvre, China landed 5000 troops on May 5, 2020 in Galwan Valley and on May 9, in Nakula in north Sikkim and on May 12, another 5000 troops in the Pangong area besides a small incursion near Demchok in southern Ladakh.

By May 18, Chinese troops occupied all the finger heights. The Chinese troops are now dominating, the newly-constructed road being the only line of communication to Daulat Beg Oldi and the major bridge is now totally at the mercy of Chinese troops. With these moves, the significance of Daulat Beg Oldi has been lost. The other important area is Galwan valley, the river Galwan named after Ghulam Rasul Galwan, a Ladakhi explorer from Leh who explored the source of the river. Chinese troops are now sitting at the confluence of Galwan river and Shyok river, hot springs and Pangong lake. According to Global Times, Galwan valley is Chinese territory where India has illegally constructed defense structures.

The demands of the Chinese army are that firstly, all the infrastructure constructed and developed should be removed. Secondly, the road to Daulat Beg Oldi is to be dismantled, including the airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi. Face-saving interviews and narratives are coming from the Indian political and military leadership. In a recent interview, the Indian defence minister was seen stressing/begging for dialogue with Chinese officials. He admitted that a significant number of Chinese troops had moved to the Line of Actual Control. However, according to Chinese media there is no line of Actual Control along the China-India border.

Such a big and bold step from China has not been seen since the 1962 war, as now Indians cannot afford a military confrontation with China. During the 1962 war, the entire Arunachal Pradesh (South Tibet) was occupied by the Chinese army and the Chinese army came down till Tezpur, Assam. In his book, Avoiding Armageddon, Bruce Riedel writes, “India was humiliated, Nehru was devasted…even Calcutta was at risk”. According to an article by Lt Gen (retired) H.S Panag, India has been surprised once again, like 1962, 1965 and 1999 on a strategic and tactical level. According to Panag, Chinese troops have occupied an area from 15 to 20 square kilometres in the Galwan river area including all heights. Along Pangong, a Chinese brigade has occupied 8 to 10 kilometres on the north bank and heights to the north, thus physically controlling 35 to 40 square kilometres of the area.

India did not learn any lessons from the 1962 defeat and committed a blunder and is now trying to look for a peaceful solution. Chinese pre-emption in the region thwarted the evil designs of India, as now China will not vacate the occupied areas. Now, the rest of Indian occupied Ladakh/Siachen/Kargil are seriously threatened from a joint operation by Chinese and Pakistani armies as Indian armed forces would now have to face threats on two fronts. The growing strategic partnership and military relations between Pakistan and China will be disastrous for India. These developments will certainly encourage Kashmiri freedom fighters and demoralise Indian troops in Indian Occupied Kashmir. India has suffered another humiliation at the hands of China after the 1962 war.

Masud Ahmed Khan

The writer is a retired brigadier and freelance columnist.